'SNL' Responds to Outcry, Recruits African-American Woman Castmember

'Versatility is what we look for,' says producer Lorne Michaels

SNL cast of Season 38
Dana Edelson/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank
John Milhiser, Brooks Wheelan, Tina Fey, Mike O'Brien, Beck Bennett, and Noel Wells on 'Saturday Night Live'.
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Saturday Night Live is getting ready to hire its first black female cast member since Maya Rudolph left in 2007. The show plans to add an African-American woman in January after holding special auditions this month in Los Angeles and New York, according to The New York Times and other outlets.

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"All told we've seen about 25 people," Lorne Michaels, executive producer of SNL, said. "A lot of the people we saw are really good. Hopefully we'll come out of the process well."

SNL drew criticism this fall for its lack of black women in the cast after Kenan Thompson said he would no longer dress in drag to portray black women and Jay Pharaoh said the show should make good on a promise to add a black woman.

Though SNL acknowledged the criticism when Scandal star Kerry Washington hosted in November, having her play Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey in the cold open, Michaels said talent is his primary consideration when hiring.

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"It doesn’t help if somebody's not ready – and 'ready' is one of the charged words. But you want to be sure you give people the best possible shot," he said, later adding, "Versatility is what we look for."

Michaels said two African-American women were in the running for a spot in the cast before the current season started, but neither dazzled when they auditioned in the SNL studio. After the season premiere in September, the search began again, he said. The show held an audition in Los Angeles for a dozen people the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and Michaels auditioned a dozen more the following Monday in New York. Given the scrutiny that a new African-American woman performer will face, Michaels wanted to make sure the show conducted a thorough search.

"That's one reason we took extra time," Michaels said. "You have to be careful to try to protect your players."